Behind the Headlines: Ignored As an Average Israeli, Confessed Assassin Fits Profile

For weeks, Israel’s security services had been warning that the prime minister or another high-ranking government official might be the target of a political assassin.

According to media reports, the profile they provided of the potential assailant was that of an unassuming, right-wing, religious, Israeli Jew.

Yigal Amir, the law student from Bar-Ilan University who confessed to pumping two 9 mm bullets into Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Saturday night, fit the profile exactly.

So how did Rabin’s security agents allow an assassin to get near their charge?

Apart from an apparent lapse in the security forces’ vigilance – which will be the subject of an official investigation – most Israelis did not really expect someone who dressed and looked like an average Israeli to kill the prime minister.

Israel’s first alleged political assassin was raised in a religious home in a middle-class neighborhood in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, served in the army and was educated in an elite track of the country’s religious Zionist system.

Questions that baffle Israelis include how such a young man came to commit, as he himself reportedly confessed to police, what is arguably the most heinous act ever perpetrated by an Israeli against his people?

And how does one explain Amir’s statement to a Tel Aviv judge at his custody hearing that he had no remorse for his crime and that he could not understand why anyone was upset over the death of a man who dared trade parts of the Holy Land for peace?

Even Amir’s friends are perplexed by his actions.

“He was a wonderful person,” Avner Goldshmidt, a personal friend, told reporters. “I don’t understand how he could do this. I’m stunned.”

“Yigal was quiet, sensitive and very smart,” said Yaron Yehoshua, a fellow student at Bar-Ilan who grew up near Amir. “We would have some political arguments, but he never seemed radical.”

But, according to police reports of statements given them by Amir, he was patient – and calculating.

Amir reportedly surprised his interrogators by telling them that his decision to assassinate the prime minister was made nearly a year ago when, as he reportedly said, “God told me” to kill Rabin.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, he reportedly admitted, was No. 2 on his hit list.

Amir waited for the right opportunity to strike, according to the police.

Foiled last January when Rabin canceled a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Amir told police investigators that he again stalked the prime minister at the opening of a highway interchange during the summer. He aborted that attempt, he reportedly told his interrogators, because security was too tight.

The young Israeli who eluded security Saturday night was born into a warm, religious Yemenite family. Amir was the second of eight children. His mother, Geula, is a kindergarten teacher; his father, Shlomo, is a scribe known for his religious piety.

Amir attended an Agudat Yisrael religious elementary school before moving on to a state religious high school.

He then opted to enroll in a Hesder Yeshiva near Ashdod, where his rabbis called him a gifted and friendly student. He also served in the Israel Defense Force’s elite Golani Brigade.

After being discharged from the army, Amir was sent by the government to Russia to teach Hebrew and Judaism, as part of a program for Hesder graduates.

He then enrolled in a prestigious “kollel” program at Bar-Ilan University, in which he studied Talmud and other Jewish disciplines in a Yeshiva atmosphere in the mornings, and law and computers in the afternoons.

Bar-Ilan officials said Amir was a good student who never got into trouble.

In the wake of the assassination, the school reportedly expelled Amir.

On Sunday, while Rabin’s body lay in state outside the Knesset, school officials and students held a prayer service to mourn the loss of Rabin.

Bar-Ilan President Shlomo Eckstein issued a statement condemning the assassination as “simply the most unJewish act imaginable. It runs contrary to everything Bar-Ilan stands for.”

A bodyguard wounded during the assassination is a second-year student at Bar- Ilan.

Amir reportedly attended Shabbat group activities at Jewish settlements in the West Bank and right-wing rallies during the past year.

Two weeks ago, he reportedly attended a rally where Rabin was compared to a Nazi and was called a murdered and traitor – rhetoric that has become increasingly frequent in extreme right-wing circles in recent months.

But Amir’s anti-Rabin activism was considered to possess neither bark nor bite, according to those who knew him.

“Amir always stood in the back at rallies,” an unnamed friend reportedly said. “No one ever dreamed he would come to this.”

But in recent months Amir reportedly became open about his desire to see the prime minister dead.

Amir participated in demonstrations during the summer at a hillside near the West Bank settlement of Efrat, where settlers staged repeated protests against Rabin’s peace moves with the Palestinians.

After being dragged off the hill by Israeli soldiers, Amir reportedly told his friend Goldshmidt, “If someone killed Rabin, he’d be a man, and I’d salute him.”

Goldshmidt said he did not pay much attention to what he considered an isolated outburst.

Soon after, Amir reportedly joined Ayal – a Hebrew acronym for “Jewish Fighter’s Organization” – a shadowy radical right-wing group.

Amir began to openly advocate killing Rabin and Peres in conversations with his kollel colleagues, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.

One of these colleagues told the paper that Amir would manipulate one of Maimonides’ teachings in a such a way as to create a halachic justification for “cutting off the heads” of Rabin and Peres, whom Amir referred to as “snakes.”

Is Amir a product of a religious, right-wing environment whose rhetorical excesses helped nourish his sense of right and wrong? Or is he jut a lone madman?

There are questions Israelis will grapple with in the coming months. No matter how they are answered, Rabin’s assassin will remain, in some ways, a reflection of the society from which he emerged.

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